I often hear organisations talk about how they opt for a commuter role rather than an expat or relocation move because it keeps things simpler. This expectation however is often misplaced as commuter roles have the potential in some ways to be more complex from a compliance perspective (payroll, tax and social security). It’s important for Mobility / HR and Tax professionals to understand why so they can guide the business accordingly.
What is a commuter?
Let’s define what we mean by commuter. A commuter is an employee who lives in one country, is employed there but is required to work
regularly in another country. There could be a weekly or a monthly pattern but what’s key is they are required to be outside their home country on a regular basis
– it’s not just a business trip. No relocation is involved, the family, the family home and payroll remain in the home country.
For many reasons commuter roles have definitely been on the rise in recent years. Some of the key reasons include roles becoming more cross border in nature and the perception that commuter roles are viewed as cost effective alternatives when compared to expat roles. Brexit has been another trigger – presence is required in countries for regulatory reasons but the
employee is settled at home (UK) so starts to commute.
Why can they be more complex?
To understand why a commuter can be more complex from a compliance perspective we probably need to understand why a typical expat assignment can be less so. In an expat scenario, or even a permanent transfer, there is usually a relocation. That relocation, family and home moving, often means the employee breaks tax residency in the home country. As a result, tax and payroll can over time primarily be a focus in the host country.
Commuters often stay tax resident in the home country – so there is payroll, income tax and social security potentially in both countries. Once worked through, cross-border social security rules can mean the social security is due in one country only but you are then still left with dual payroll and income taxes. The result is payroll gets very complex with specialist knowledge and adjustments being required to prevent double tax withholding and the income tax filings and liabilities for the employee get ever more complex.
The home country employer may also need to register in the host country for social security or payroll taxes. There are also related considerations around immigration, employment law, corporate tax permanent establishment and regulation such as posted worker directives to consider too. If that wasn’t enough to think about, it’s also necessary to check how travel, accommodation and subsistence costs are taxed in both countries. These are very often reimbursed or paid for directly by the employer so if they become taxable there can be hidden tax liabilities that can be unwelcome surprises and costs.
What tips are there?
There are solutions and methods to manage the complexities around payroll and taxes but early analysis is absolutely key. This way you can help the business understand the potential changes in obligations that can be triggered. The analysis may also help in identifying the compliance triggers in the host country, for example a certain number of days worked each year. The arrangement can then be structured or managed to either avoid tripping those triggers or at the very least the business is fully aware of what it is signing up for with the related additional complexity and costs.